It may be a wet and cold winter in London beset with traffic jams and seemingly endless darkness, but inside the Royal Academy’s glorious new exhibition it is high summer. Abundant flowers bloom all around you, bright green leaves and grasses almost escape their frames and the sun burns down on almost every image of verdant splendour. The British love of garden aesthetics dates back hundreds of years, from formally designed ‘classical’ styles at great stately homes beloved of monarchs and aristocrats, to the romantic wildness of later years, the opportunity to own, shape and grow our own gardens has become a widespread leisure pursuit. Napoleon may have thought us a nation of shopkeepers but we are also a nation of gardeners.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse exploits this brilliantly, bringing together the biggest artistic names in the period of Monet’s life all of whom were inspired by and painted garden scenes – Van Gough, Renoir, Singer Sargent, Klimt and Matisse (an art heist’s dream), alongside other artists representing Spain, England and Italy. The Monets, of course, are the big draw for anyone visiting this exhibition, and they are extraordinary, but don’t let them entirely distract you from everything else. This is not an exhibition to rush around but take you time, relax and enjoy every carefully chosen piece.
The exhibition is arranged thematically starting with an introductory section on Monet and Renoir who took inspiration from their gardens. Largely these are domestic scenes, not quite on the scale of the water lilies (be patient they do come a bit later) and certainly not the extensive formal gardens of stately homes. Instead we have Renoir’s charmingly meta depiction of Monet painting in his garden at Argenteuil in 1873, in which the man himself stands to one side of an overflowing rose bush painting the scene ahead of him, while his friend Renoir paints him painting. This sits beside Monet’s own view of his garden from a different angle but with a similar burst of foliage and flowers drawing your eye away from two strolling figures at the back. Another domestic scene, Lady in the Garden by Monet is also exquisite and, as the exhibition argues, neatly depicts the middle classes increased pleasure in their gardens as a place of retreat and relaxation.
Cleverly, having given you some Monet’s up-front, the rest are confined to two separate rooms, one in the centre, before building to the news-worthy pieces at the end. It’s an excellent approach allowing the viewer to see chronological shifts in Monet’s work in the context of artists and movements that influenced him. It also means these other pieces get the fair deal they deserve because people aren’t just rushing to the Monet in each room and then leaving. Sticking with him for the moment, his early years at Giverny are given an entire room to themselves with several of his most famous water-lily scenes. We’re told more about his plans to divert water from a nearby stream to create the water garden and in it breed new species of lily which he went on to paint – here the use of original letters and photographs make a great addition. The influence of Japanese styles can be seen in the bridges included in some of his most famous pictures spanning the water way as cascades of lilies float on the water. My favourite, Water Lilies, painted in 1903 beautifully combines pearlescent pinks, whites and blues as reflection of the sky in the water as patches of lilies float off into the distance while a single branch from an overhanging tree peeks down from the top. It’s perfect.
The final sections of Monets are at the end, painted after the death of his wife and during the period of the First World War when he refused to leave his beloved garden. Here the tone has shifted considerably and the lightness of the early images is replaced by darker autumnal tones and heavily textured brushwork which actually reek of impending death and decay – a fitting comment on the heavy loss of life experienced by soldiers in those years. These are stunning images and seeing them together starkly underlines Monet’s style shift. Saving the best till last the RA’s exhibition packs an almighty punch on the way out – the Water Lilies (Agapanthus) triptych from 1915-1926, displayed together in Europe for the first time as each piece belongs to a different gallery. Fitting seamlessly together, the whole thing which dominates the final room is an almost overwhelming experience and almost defies description – beautiful, radiant and a privilege to see.
But Monet is only the half of it, and this splendid exhibition has plenty more to say. In room two it looks at Impressionist interpretations that rage against growing industrialisation and attempt to document a growing interest in horticultural science. Caillebotte’s The Wall of the Garden is in stark contrast to the exuberance of other works, being much more restrained, and paler than his counterparts. Meanwhile Jeanne in the Garden, Pontoise by Camille Pissaro is somewhere between the two, a more self-possessed garden with a wistful figure in the shade. This leads nicely into the International Gardens room which combines a variety of approaches including Max Liebermann’s impressions of his garden at Lake Wannsee which were not really to my taste, while Laurits Tuxen’s image of a figure consumed in an abundant sea of flowers and Peder Koyer’s charming painting of Marie in a deckchair under a white rose bush are delightful. There are a few Singer Sargent gardens although his masterpiece Carnation, Lily, Lily Rose, remains firmly in the The Tate, but there is room for Van Gough’s Daubigny’s Garden at Auvers which has a textured swirly quality familiar to the artist, while Klimt’s stunning Flower Garden is a shining inclusion.
A more eerie interpretation of gardens occurs in the final rooms, looking at them in different stages of light and entirely devoid of people which changes them from places of happiness and colour to areas of shadow and fear. Artists like Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard encourage us to think more about the cycles of nature in the garden, while Santiago Rusinol’s empty gardens are unsettling, yet they are the perfect pre-amble to viewing Monet’s final works, setting the tone as you approach the last rooms. This is clever curation by the RA who use these pictures to walk you through notions of youth and bloom, before the inevitable aging that follows. As you walk this path through the gallery your mood becomes more contemplative allowing you to view these final Monet’s in the correct state of mind – brilliant stuff. Arguably the RA could’ve got into the spirit a little more with some simple stencil decoration on the walls or around the rooms, other than the park benches, but nonetheless it’s a bright and enticing show.
Amazing too how diverse this collection is and clearly the RA has put extraordinary work into tracking down and borrowing these pictures from galleries across the world and, surprisingly many from private collections. That alone makes this a rare chance to see so much work in one place, but also stunning pictures usually reserved for the pleasure of their unnamed owners. The thematic structure works well but honestly it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d just thrown everything up on the walls, the pictures are so beautiful I would’ve wandered round happily anyway. As with many high profile exhibitions, the weekend viewings are densely crowded and you must fight for space at first, but as you walk through the rooms the beauty and serenity of the pictures has a calming effect till you barely notice anyone else because you’re so drawn into those wonderful gardens, dreaming of the summer that still seems a long way off.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy until 20 April. Entry is £16 for adults (without donation) and several concessions are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1